Since 1974, students’ school records have been protected under a federal law called FERPA. The law is concerned with student privacy, which continues to be relevant in an increasingly digital world.
Schools hold a lot of sensitive information about students, and they are responsible for keeping it safe. However, students also have the right to access information about themselves in a reasonable and timely manner. Traditionally, schools have required a wet-ink signature to access student records, but e-signatures are changing that.
What is FERPA?
FERPA stands for the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a United States federal law that protects student records and their privacy. It’s applicable to every school that receives federal funding via several programs sponsored by the Department of Education.
The vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States are subject to FERPA because the Federal Student Loan program and most financial aid programs are affiliated with the Department of Education. The law also applies to some primary schools and high schools.
Students hold the right to their own records when they are over the age of 18 or attending a college or university. These rights are given to the parents or legal guardians of students under the age of 18. When a student turns 18 or finishes high school (whichever comes first), the rights revert to the student.
Student Rights and Records FERPA Compliance
There are two critical components of this law: the rights and the records. The records are any identifying pieces of information related to the student’s time at the institution. It is easier to define what a record is not. Student rights are related to how this information is accessed.
There are two kinds of information that a school collects about a student: directory information and records. Directory information is the only information about a student that doesn’t fall under FERPA protection. This information is limited to:
- Student name
- Telephone number
- Dates of attendance
- Awards or honors
- Date and/or place of birth
Schools must give students the option to request the school not disclose this information prior to the first day of classes.
Aside from directory information, anything the school collects about a student becomes a record. This could include (but is not limited to):
- Application materials
- Immunization records
- Grades and transcripts
- Conduct and disciplinary reports
- Advisement notes or information
- Permission slips
- Emergency contact forms
Each student has multiple records at an institution, as each department tends to keep its own separate files. Every part of an institution is required to comply with FERPA when they store information about a student. All of these records together make up the student’s entire record.
Students have the right to review all of their records and request corrections for inaccurate information. If the institution disagrees with a correction, the student has a right to a formal hearing to argue their case and place a note in the record describing their view of the information in question if the correction is not accepted.
Students also have the right to privacy for all of this information. An institution needs written permission to share any of a student’s records with anyone for any reason. There are only a handful of exceptions:
- a school official needs a record for a legitimate educational reason
- officials performing an audit of the institution may see records in the context of the audit
- a school is complying with a judicial order or subpoena
- health and safety emergencies
There are also a few scenarios where a school will transfer a student’s records without notifying a student, but the student must initiate the process. These situations include transferring to another institution, applying for financial aid, or participating in a study through the school.
Schools and other educational institutions have the responsibility to keep student records secure. They need to store physical and electronic records safely so that only those with permission to see them have access.
It’s also up to the institution to judge whether a request is valid. Usually, a school will require a specific form to release student records, and the form requires a wet-ink or valid e-signature from the student.
What Does FERPA Have to Do With E-Signatures?
The only way an institution can release a student’s records is with their express, written permission. Schools usually have forms that can help fill this need. By filling out the form, students can designate which records they are releasing and to whom.
A critical aspect of every kind of FERPA compliant release form is the signature. No permissions are granted without the student’s signature. Schools also have to keep records for up to 100 years. Since so many types of information are part of a student record, 100 years’ worth of paper requests can take up an enormous amount of storage space.
As electronic storage becomes more common, more schools are shifting to digital permission forms. These forms need secure and identifiable signature options. If a school gives out information without the proper release, they can get in trouble. Too many FERPA violations can lead to fines or the school losing federal funding.
Using electronic documents means schools need an electronic way for students to sign FERPA forms that maintain the security and integrity of the records. E-signatures are a great option that benefits both students and the institution. Popular digital forms that educators are obtaining electronic signatures for include:
- Field trip permission slips
- Incident reports
- Photography/videography release forms
- IEP and behavior plan establishment
- Accident and incident reports
- Transcript requests
- Homework submissions
- Volunteer hour logs
- Sign-up sheets
- Report cards and grading
Electronic forms and e-signatures can also make it easier for departments within an institution to share student records when allowed by a valid educational reason. Having all of a student’s records in one place makes it easier for students to manage their records as well.
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Institutions cannot share student record information with anyone, even the student’s parents, without permission. It’s not uncommon for schools to offer a FERPA form to students at the beginning of the term to give them the option to provide their parents or guardians FERPA rights.
Granting FERPA permissions is a way for students to provide a single blanket approval for a designated person to see their records. These permissions need to be stored and validated, whether it’s a physical form with a wet-ink signature or a digital document with an e-signature.
Ensuring An E-Signature is Valid
To remain in compliance with FERPA, schools using electronic permission forms need a way to validate e-signatures. Since FERPA documents and permission forms are legally binding, their signatures need to comply with the federal ESIGN Act.
Ensuring that an electronic signature is valid and legally binding is a snap with electronic signatures. Features like detailed auditing, signature completion certificates, and encrypted digital signature signing keys allow schools to prevent fraudulent signing and ensure validity effectively.
How Do E-Signatures Work?
An e-signature is a digital or otherwise virtual signature that holds the same legal weight as a wet-ink signature for most documents when certain criteria, including ESIGN and UETA, are met. When you use e-signatures, you use a program or software, such as Foxit eSign, to transmit the form between two or more people with the intent of gathering and receiving signatures.
For the purposes of FERPA, e-signatures are legal as long as any forms involved clearly state that the signer approves of the form and signing format, and the school has a method of validating the authenticity of the signatures, such as through digital signatures.
There may be other compliance regulations associated with FERPA that you or your educational organization should be aware of. Foxit eSign recommends getting familiar with all regulations and guidances that may apply to your document sending and receiving. You can read more about FERPA here.
The Benefits of Using Electronic Signatures for FERPA Compliance
There are plenty of reasons why you might need to provide a school with an e-signature instead of a wet-ink signature in the context of FERPA. But, did you know there are multiple benefits to choosing electronic signatures over traditional signatures? Take a look:
Electronic signatures increase the rate at which important school paperwork can be completed by allowing documents to be signed and received in minutes.
Educational institutions can save big by using electronic signatures and reducing their need for paper and mailing services.
Form and paperwork errors can be significantly reduced using electronic signature software to send reminders to signers and mark necessary boxes as mandatory so they won’t be missed.
Document forgery, duplication, fraud, and theft issues are all reduced when electronic signatures are used in place of traditional pen-and-ink. Security is increased even further when digital signatures are incorporated.
Signers can easily complete necessary paperwork from anywhere by using electronic signatures. This can be especially helpful as more schools are conducting remote classrooms.
Features like multiple signature completion, click-to-sign, completion tracking, and more make electronic signatures convenient for everyone involved.
Use Foxit eSign Confidently for FERPA Compliant Electronic Signatures
Complying with FERPA is a tricky business. Student privacy is paramount, but so is access to student records. Using electronic resources can help cut through the red tape and make compliance hassle-free.
Whether you are a student or a school administrator, using electronic signatures for FERPA forms is safe, secure, and easy.