What is FERPA Compliance?

Definition

Millions of U.S. residents apply to college and attend classes every year, making educational systems the perfect target for a data breach. To protect user information, U.S. Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, in 1974. Educational institutions store social security numbers, bank accounts, and other critically sensitive data. So, when a data breach occurs, FERPA holds them accountable for not taking the necessary steps to implement cybersecurity and safeguard student information. Non-compliance with FERPA regulations could result in the loss of federal funding.

What Is the Purpose of FERPA?

Compliance regulations aim to keep user data safe, and FERPA focuses its efforts on protecting student data. Because school systems store personally identifiable information (PII) that can be used in identity theft, FERPA imposes strict penalties for educational institutions that don't safeguard it. Schools must employ robust cybersecurity or risk losing critical financial support from the government. FERPA provides data privacy best practices for organizations and holds them accountable with hefty fines for non-compliance.

What are the Rules, Laws, and Regulations for FERPA Compliance?

In addition to protecting student data, FERPA requires organizations to disclose student rights under data protection laws. Students should have transparency to their information and consent to specific practices such as releasing their PII to other institutions or third parties.

Consent

Students can request their educational records at any time and should be advised of their rights annually. With proper guidance, students can then waive their right to see their records. Before releasing any personal data, students must give their consent in writing before distribution by administrators or school officials.

Training

FERPA mandates training for teachers, administrators, or other school officials around the implications of disclosing student information. They should know about FERPA regulations and what they can do to safeguard data from unauthorized individuals. Third-party vendors with access to student information should be notified of FERPA compliance.

Cybersecurity

Digital student data is a primary target for attackers. Educational organizations must follow best practices to protect data from cyber-criminals. A data breach could be costly from fines and legal fees. Here are a few elements of FERPA compliance in IT:

  • Encrypt data: All data must be encrypted at rest and in transit. This means data stored on physical devices cannot be disclosed even if the device is stolen, and data transmitted over the internet is also protected.
  • Test and remediate vulnerabilities: Vulnerability scans will find issues with infrastructure that stores data such as databases and cloud storage. Review security controls and policies regularly.
  • Monitoring and audit trails: Monitor all systems for suspicious activity that could indicate a data breach either from outside sources or insider threats. Some applications will monitor infrastructure for compliance to ensure that they meet standards.
  • Continuous updates and reviews: Compliance standards change, and regulatory bodies provide a limited amount of time to deploy updates to the system. To provide plenty of time to deploy changes and be aware of FERPA updates, always review regulations annually.

Who Must Comply with FERPA?

Any organization that stores student data such as social security numbers, contact information, and financial data must follow FERPA regulations. Internal and publicly accessible systems must have the proper access controls and cybersecurity implemented to avoid a data breach. Colleges, universities, high schools, elementary schools, and vocational schools fall under FERPA compliance.

Non-compliance with FERPA can lead to severe penalties and cost the organization its funding, devastating its operations.

Other repercussions for non-compliance:

  • Lose any federal funding from the government.
  • Prosecution under relevant laws, both state and federal.
  • Investigations into employee misconduct and business practices to identify responsible parties and negligence.
  • Dismissal of any employee responsible for the data breach.
  • Temporary suspension of management overseeing compliance.

How to Become Compliant

The first step in compliance is a full risk assessment conducted by a professional. This risk assessment analyzes infrastructure for compliance and data that could be a target for attackers. Other ways you can become compliant:

  • Ensure data is encrypted. Data can be at rest or in transit. Data at rest represents information stored in a database or files stored on a drive. Sending data from a web page to the database is data in transit. Student data must be encrypted when it’s in transit and at rest on a storage device.
  • Install a firewall. Firewalls block outside traffic from reaching sensitive data storage devices such as a database. Firewalls are required with FERPA compliance, and they are valuable tools for controlling traffic on your network.
  • Use access control policies. An IT administrator on your network should set up structured access control policies to restrict access to data to authorized users only. Censor other data so that low-privileged users cannot read it. For example, a registrar administrator should only see the last four digits of a student’s social security number instead of revealing the entire number when viewing it on an application.
  • Install anti-malware software. Always install antivirus and anti-malware software on servers and user computers. These applications stop malware such as ransomware from being installed on the network.
  • Communicate data collection and storage with students. FERPA requires that students understand the data stored by the educational institution, and they must be notified if the institution plans to disclose their data to a third party.