FERPA compliance and the reverse transfer process

President Obama set ambitious goals last year to promote college affordability and improve educational outcomes. Reverse transfer offers a promising avenue for reaching the president’s attainment goals.  In a reverse transfer, academic credits for coursework completed at a four-year institution are transferred back to the community college to satisfy an associates degree or certification requirements.  

The increased visibility of reverse transfer has led to a number of questions about FERPA compliance. One of the primary concerns is whether the receiving institution may provide information about the transferring student’s course completion to the two-year institution.  

According to Joan Hope in the August 2014 issue of Campus Legal Advisor, successful reverse transfers are beneficial not only to students, but also to institutions.  Two-year colleges boost their completion rates, while officials at four-year institutions can strengthen partnerships that may increase future enrollment.  

Institutions that are implementing reverse transfers must follow FERPA guidelines. In particular, says LeRoy Rooker, senior fellow at AACRAO and former director of the Family Policy Compliance Office, they must obtain signed consent from transferring students in order to disclose their educational records to the two-year institution.  Registrars have been uncertain about the need to obtain signed consent because FERPA, under certain circumstances, waives this requirement.  However, as Rooker explained, this waiver is only valid under certain circumstances, none of which apply to reverse transfers.  

Consent can be waived for disclosures to:

1.    School officials (in the same institution) with legitimate educational interests;
2.    Schools in which a students seeks or intends to enroll;
3.    Federal, state, and local educational authorities who are auditing or evaluating an educational program; and
4.    Organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of, an educational institution.

Plainly, none of these exceptions apply to disclosures of completion information to institutions from which a student has transferred.  Thus, the four-year institution must obtain the transfer student’s consent before disclosing information about the transferring student’s course completion to the two-year institution.  

The process of obtaining consent need not be onerous.  According to Rooker, a student’s e-signature on his response email is sufficient for indicating consent if the email account meets certain criteria.  It must have been assigned to the student by the institution, and the first log-in must have required a randomly generated password rather than personal information.  Four-year institutions can also include consent language in the admissions application.  This should be a separate item which states that the student permits disclosure of degree-qualifying records back to their previous institution.  It can be as simple as a checkbox.    Another method is to ask for consent upon transfer to another institution.  A common practice when students leave a two year institution is to ask students to complete an opt-in /opt-out transfer request.  If students opt in, it enables the two year school to request transcripts from a four year following transfer.     

Additional resources for reverse transfer include the AACRAO 2012 FERPA Guide, as well as campus training that can be arranged through AACRAO.  “LeRoy speaks with sound authority," says Kim West, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services, Kennesaw State University. "And any audience feels a certain confidence when he is present."

For more questions, or information about Ferpa Consulting, you can email LeRoy Rooker at ferpa@aacrao.org.