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FERPA, HIPAA and Important Family Decisions

Vicki Nelson

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When our three daughters headed off to college, we knew that they were emerging adults. They weren’t quite there yet, but they were on their way.

As difficult as it was to loosen our grip, we understood that we had to let them make many of their own decisions — and mistakes — while we stepped back. It wasn’t easy, but we all survived.

One decision that we made as we began to give our daughters more independence was to ask that they be responsible for telling us what we needed to know about their progress at school. We asked them to share their grades with us at the end of each semester, and to let us know if they were having problems.

We didn’t ask them to sign any waivers. We gave responsibility to our daughters.

What is FERPA?

FERPA stands for the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. This law was designed to protect the privacy of educational records and to give students the right to inspect and review their educational records.

From elementary through high school, parents hold these rights on behalf of their children. However, once your student heads to college, even if they're under 18 and even if you are paying the tuition, these rights transfer to your student.

Legally, college students are considered responsible adults with the right to determine who has access to their school records. This means that all academic information such as grades and academic standing are given to your student rather than to you.

It’s important to know that there is a health and safety exception to FERPA. If the college feels that there is a need to protect the health or safety of your student, or of others, information may be shared. The college may also disclose any violation of laws and policies relating to the use or possession of drugs or alcohol by students under 21.

Note: FERPA allows but doesn’t require a school to share this information. Check the individual school policy regarding parental notification.

Is there any way for parents to access information?

Most colleges provide a waiver that students may sign allowing records to be released to parents. Many parents insist that their student sign this waiver.

We did not ask our daughters to sign a FERPA waiver because we wanted them to know that we trusted them to manage their academics. Sharing academic information with us became a family decision rather than a legal or institutional issue. It provided us an additional opportunity to communicate about our expectations and their responsibilities. This felt right for us.

How about health information?

Most of us are familiar with HIPAA regulations. The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 protects sensitive patient information. Once a student turns 18, much like FERPA, HIPAA gives them control over their health care and records.

The area of health information becomes a bit legally fuzzy. There is overlap between FERPA regulations and HIPAA regulations. Health records maintained by college health centers are generally, but not always, covered by FERPA regulations rather than HIPAA regulations. This information is considered part of the student’s educational record and so is excluded from HIPAA. It’s confusing, and you could spend a lot of time trying to sort out the laws.

Decide together what to do.

Here’s what I would change if I had it to do over again. I would not ask for my student’s ongoing health records at college. (Remember, these are covered under FERPA.) But I would make sure we discussed, and anticipated, potential health emergencies. I’d ask for health record release forms.

We were lucky. No one had a major illness or major accident while at school. No one was injured, unconscious or incapacitated and unable to make decisions herself or to make her wishes known to her doctors. I never needed to talk to doctors or medical staff about any of my daughters’ health-related issues.

What we would discuss is a Medical Information Release Form and an Advance Health Care Directive or Health Care Proxy. The Information Release Form allow a student, or anyone, to designate someone to have access to their medical records in an emergency. It would allow hospital personnel (covered by HIPAA not FERPA) to share information with a parent — or whoever else the student might designate.

The Health Care Proxy or Medical Power of Attorney allows a student to designate someone to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to make them for themselves.

Both forms are available online or from a doctor’s office. The HIPAA release form may not need to be notarized; this varies from state to state. It is wise for both you and your student to keep a copy. Talking to your student about the need for these forms, about possible situations and decisions that might come up, and about the trust involved, is one more opportunity to work together.

Reflecting . . .

So what would I do again? And what would I change?

I’d continue to trust my children to share their academic information — or work things out for themselves. We had some bumps, for sure, but I still believe that independence and ownership of the responsibility was worth it.

I would not ask for a FERPA waiver. But I would have the important conversation about health and I would ask for health release forms.

These decisions are personal, and they can be difficult. These choices were right for my family. Your choice might be different. But whatever decision you make, it is important that you understand the legal restrictions and implications.

Both FERPA and HIPAA regulations are complex and can be intimidating. But it is important to consider them, decide what is right for your student and your family, and talk together about how and why you hope your student will share information.

The conversation alone will help your student understand their responsibilities in these areas and will be another step forward toward adulthood and independence.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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