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Federal laws and student privacy

Diane Schwemm


Many parents view their students’ college years as a gradual transition from dependent childhood to independent young adulthood.

However, there are a few areas where college students are considered adults under the law and parents’ rights to access information about their students are restricted.

FERPA

Education records

Parents do not have automatic access to their college student’s grades. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, gives parents control of their children’s educational records and transfers that control to students when they turn 18 or go to college. Educational records include grades, transcripts, course schedules, student financial information and disciplinary records.

Because of FERPA, the college will not share education records with a third party (including a parent) unless authorized by the student. The exception is “directory information” (a student’s name, address, phone number, date of birth, etc.) which the school can share with third parties. Schools must notify students annually of their rights under FERPA, including how to opt out of having their directory information made public.

How should families deal with FERPA? A good place to start is by talking to your student (early in the school year if possible) about their academic goals and how much information you’d like about their grades. Your student may or may not be open with you about how they’re doing in their classes. You can show your support by taking an interest in what they are studying, and not just focusing on grades.

If a student wants to let a parent, guardian or other supportive adult see their grades, there is usually a process for granting “third party access.” You may already have a parent login to your student’s account, created with your student’s permission, allowing you to view the tuition statement.

Alternatively, if your student is a dependent for tax purposes, the college may disclose these records to you with or without your student’s consent. You will need to provide evidence of your student’s status; steps to follow will be on the Registrar’s page on the college website.

Treatment records

The privacy protections of FERPA also apply when your student is treated at campus health and counseling clinics. It’s up to your student to decide whether to share information with you about their treatment and/or invite you into consultations with campus health providers.

At any time a college is allowed under FERPA to contact parents of students under the age of 21 who violate laws or policies relating to drug possession or underage drinking, and schools are permitted to disclose information in an emergency if it’s deemed necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other individuals.

HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects the privacy of medical records. As soon as children turn 18, parents no longer have access to their medical information even if they’re still covered by the family health insurance policy.

This means that your student’s visits to health providers and hospitals off campus — including the family doctor back home — are confidential. If there is an accident or health emergency and your student is hospitalized, medical personnel will not be able to consult with you without your student’s consent.

There’s a simple form your student can complete which permits health-care providers to share information with you or include you in conversations. Generic HIPAA authorization forms can be found online; your doctor’s office may have one as well. If your student goes to school out of state, it is a good idea to fill one out both for that state and your home state. These forms do not need to be notarized. You and your student should both keep paper copies and store scans on your computer or smartphone.

EMERGENCY ROOM EXCEPTIONS: The safety and care of a patient trumps HIPAA, so in the E.R., if a patient is unable to communicate, doctors can use their own judgment about sharing information with family members who are present.

Learn more at www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-individuals/index.html, www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/parents.html and by contacting your student’s college or university.

 

Diane Schwemm is a writer and Managing Editor at CollegiateParent. She and her husband are parents of a college student and two recent graduates. In her off hours, she likes to read, hike and garden and, thanks to the influence of her family, appreciates ballet and basketball equally.
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