Ferpa Does Not Prohibit U. of Illinois From Releasing Student Records, Judge Rules

March 09, 2011

A federal judge has ruled that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not prohibit the University of Illinois from turning over the names and educational records of applicants. The law, known as Ferpa, protects the privacy of student records, and colleges that violate it could lose their eligibility for federal student aid.

The Chicago Tribune had originally sought information about hundreds of applicants—including the names and addresses of their parents—as part of a series of stories examining political influence in the admissions process at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The newspaper later asked for the names of applicants and their high-school grade-point averages and ACT scores. The university had denied some of the paper's requests, saying it was barred from doing so under Ferpa.

Illinois open-records law exempts "information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law or rules and regulations adopted under federal or state law." Ferpa, the university argued, makes such a prohibition.

The newspaper then sued in both state and federal court, with the federal suit concerning only the first request . And this week, Judge Joan B. Gottschall, of the U.S. District Court in Chicago, ruled that Ferpa does not bar the university from releasing the records, according to court documents.

The law stipulates that institutions receiving federal aid cannot release certain types of educational records, but in her ruling, Judge Gottschall said the university could choose not to accept such aid and is, therefore, not "prohibited" from releasing the records.

"Ferpa sets conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and it imposes requirements on the secretary of education to enforce the spending conditions by withholding funds in appropriate situations," she wrote. "Illinois could choose to reject federal education money, and the conditions of Ferpa along with it, so it cannot be said that Ferpa prevents Illinois from doing anything."

Because the ruling was narrow, looking only at the "prohibition" question, the decision does not necessarily mean the university will have to hand over the records to the Tribune—and potentially make itself ineligible for federal aid. The university has previously cited several additional exemptions in the state's open-records law, including one for "files and personal information" related to students at public educational institutions.

The state case is continuing, according to the Tribune.

The university has not said whether it will appeal the federal ruling.

"The university's effort to offer transparency while protecting student-privacy rights is guided always by the spirit and letter of the law," it said in a written statement. "Although the court's ruling is narrow, it remains disappointing as it represents a setback for the privacy rights of young adults applying for admission to public universities in Illinois and nationwide. We will review the ruling thoroughly before deciding upon next steps."

Steven J. McDonald, an expert on Ferpa and the general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design, says a handful of other cases have looked narrowly at the question of whether Ferpa "prohibits" public colleges from releasing records. Some courts have arrived at conclusions similar to Judge Gottschall's, he said. But others have held that as a practical matter a college could not reject federal funds and that, therefore, Ferpa is tantamount to a prohibition on releasing educational records.

He did not know of any cases where a public college had ultimately handed over student records that forced it to forgo federal funds. "It would shut a college down."