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FERPA: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”

The rules and regulations in the FERPA Act may not be as harsh as the prison guards in the movie Cool Hand Luke (see quote from title), but at times they may come off that way. Hopefully we can help you understand some of the finer points of this often confusing Act and why we have it.

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It was passed in 1974 primarily to protect college students’ information from being stolen. The law is airtight enough that in some cases faculty and staff cannot even confirm if a person is still enrolled at that school. The act itself is long and at best, complicated. To avoid some confusion let’s take a look at a couple excerpts.

First, the act states: “FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. Students to whom the rights have transferred are “eligible students.”

Simply put, this means that if your child is enrolled at Gonzaga University, regardless of whether they are 18 or not, they are the only person entitled to access the personal information held by the school. This includes things like GPA, ID number, class schedule, financial aid information, etc. Often parents are harmlessly inquiring about this information and become a little upset when it’s so strictly denied from them. It may even seem as if the Italian man the school was named after was really Don Corleone and not Luigi Gonzaga. Rest assured, many of Gonzaga’s faculty and staff carry with them the compassion of our namesake, but we also protect our students like The Godfather protects the Family.

There is a little leniency in the law: “The Secretary clarifies that an educational agency or institution may disclose education records to either parent of a dependent student.”

The overlooked word here is the word “may.” Gonzaga may, or they may not, disclose such records. Every student is asked at orientation if they would like to waive this protection or keep their records confidential. It’s the decision of the student and Gonzaga honors this choice. The exception here may be in the case of actual physical harm to the student. In these rare cases Gonzaga will make every effort to contact parents and families. Although these incidents are uncommon, they’ve been prepared for.

You might be thinking ‘Wow, I’m glad Gonzaga is looking out for my son or daughter, but what would anyone ever want to do with a simple college student’s information?’ With access to these things a student could easily be embarrassed, have their bank account accessed, be stalked while walking to class, have their information sold, and other dangers that shouldn’t complicate the mind of a student more than it already is. Life without FERPA would be similar to posting all the information you didn’t want a person to know about you onto your Facebook account, except this time the consequences could be more serious than a person making a comment or pushing the “like” button to knowing your social security number.

Finally, the easiest way to find out information about your son or daughter is to talk to them personally. We encourage families to communicate with their college student about these matters, as well as help us in teaching them self responsibility. Through and through we want each student’s education and personal development to be a team effort between Gonzaga and families. All our energies are put into ensuring that our students not only receive a top tier education, but that they also develop into amazing individuals that change the world. FERPA is just one more tool we use to protect our students and ensure they enjoy their time here without worrying who’s accessing their information.

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