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Access to student information in college: FERPA, HIPAA, releasing information, and legal documents

Understanding privacy laws and the documents parents should have in place to support a student with disabilities.

By: Annie Tulkin, MS, Founder/Director, Accessible College 

When your student transitions to college, lots of things change. Legally, there is a whole new set of information parents need to be aware of. Once your student turns 18, they are legally an adult. When they become an adult, they take on the legal responsibilities of being an adult. This is not different for visually impaired college students. This means that they are in control of their educational record, protected health information, and other personal information. Parents are no longer able to call the student’s school or doctor and obtain information about the student. It’s important to understand the specific laws related to this change and considerations you must make as a parent when the student transitions to college.

This transition can be both a powerful growth opportunity for the student, and an emotional stretch for both parent and student.

Expectations change, a student’s need for independence grows, and the role of parents changes to being one of patient advisor instead of “doer”.  

Federal privacy laws

Once your student turns 18, they have many more privacy rights. There are two main laws that impact a parent’s ability to get information about their student:

  1. Family Educational Rights and Protection Act (FERPA)
  2. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

FERPA is a Federal law that protects the privacy of a student’s education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. When a student turns 18, or matriculates to college, FERPA applies. This means that without explicit permission given by the student, parents will no longer have access to the student’s educational records such as grades, attendance and disciplinary information. 

Without explicit permission given by the student, parents will no longer have access to their school records, such as grades, attendance and disciplinary information. 

Since many parents are assuming responsibility for the costs for their student’s college education, this often catches them by surprise. Many parents feel that they should be able to access the student’s educational record if they are paying for college, but this is not the case. 

If the parents and the student both agree that they would like the parent to have access to the educational record, the student and parent can sign a FERPA waiver through the college; this form is usually part of the many forms that need to be completed to enroll a student in college. It’s crucial to understand, however, that this form will need to be signed every year. 

If a student does not encounter a FERPA waiver during their Orientation process, the student will have to contact the Student Affairs office, or Orientation Office, to inquire about how to complete a FERPA waiver.

HIPAA is a federal law that protects a person’s private health information. When a student turns 18, parents lose access to the student’s health information. Students and parents can engage in a conversation to determine whether the student would like the parent to be able to converse with their doctors and have access to their medical records. If the student and parent determine that they would like the parent to have access to the health information, both the student and parent will need to sign a HIPAA waiver with each of the student’s doctors, individually. This includes all healthcare providers, such as medical doctors, therapists, social workers, and counselors.

Other types of waivers: the student is the lead! 

Different offices on college campuses may require additional waivers to allow administrators to speak with parents. At the college level, everything is led by the student; there is not an assumed obligation to communicate with parents. 

Most universities will expect the student to be able to speak for themselves and make decisions on their own behalf.

However, if the student would like their parent to be a part of certain conversations, the college may require the student and parent to sign a waiver. In some cases, this might be the FERPA waiver (mentioned earlier). Or, an office may have a waiver for a release of information that allows students to specify what information can be shared, and who that information can be shared with. Those offices may include the college’s Counseling Center, the Disability Services Office, and the Dean’s office or student advisor’s office. 

Parents should not expect that they will be able to reach out directly to the students’ professors; it is the student’s responsibility to communicate with professors. If parents have a concern about their student, they can typically direct that concern to the student’s Office of Student Affairs, or the college’s Counseling Center.  

Emergency forms and planning

Your student’s transition to college is often an appropriate time for families to think about handing over the reins to their student for management of many parts of their life. As the student works towards full independence, there are some other legal pieces that families may want to put into place:

Typically, a family would work with an attorney to get these documents in place prior to the student starting college.

There are a lot of moving parts when a student starts college or turns 18!  Start preparing early and have conversations with the student to ensure that there is a strong communication plan in place as your student steps out into their own life, and experiences the challenges, and rewards of, independence. By having clear boundaries, while allowing opportunities for growing autonomy – and thus, making mistakes – parents can allow their students to grow and learn, as they establish their own path to adulthood and independence

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