AACRAO Guidance: The Census, Directory Information, and FERPA

Michael V. Reilly |
June 3, 2020
  • Advocacy
  • Compliance and Reporting
  • census
  • covid-19

Last week, AACRAO hosted a webinar with the U.S. Census Bureau where colleges and universities were informed that the Census Bureau will be contacting institutions and requesting that they provide them with certain directory information on their students. FERPA generally permits such disclosures and we strongly urge all of our members to work with the Census Bureau to provide them with the particular directory information items it is seeking on your students.

As you are aware, directory information items can include: student's name, address, photograph, telephone listing, electronic mail address, date and place of birth, major field of student, grade level, enrollment status, dates of attendance, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, degrees, honors and awards received, and the most recent educational agency or institution attended. However, because directory information must be limited to information that is not generally considered harmful or an invasion of privacy, it cannot include items such as social security numbers, race, gender, or ethnicity. The three directory information items which the Census need are name, address, and date of birth.   

Notwithstanding, we also understand that institutions are cautious about individuals or entities requesting student information under FERPA and, as a result, may limit the items they designate as directory information.  As such, institutions that do not include one or more of the noted items as directory information would not be able to provide the Census Bureau with the item(s) since an institution is limited to sharing only those directory information items which were included in its notification to students. There is, however, a solution to this situation which could still permit institutions to provide the Census Bureau the relevant information needed to complete an accurate Census count. 

 Under FERPA, an institution can change its directory information items at any time, so long as the institution meets the conditions set forth in the FERPA regulations. The requirements, found at §99.37(a), are that the institution gives notice to students of (1) the personally identifiable information (PII) items designated as directory information, (2) the student's right to refuse to let the institution designate those types of information about the student as directory information, and (3) the period of time (i.e., two weeks) within which a student must notify the institution not to include the student's information as directory information. Thus, an institution has the flexibility to revise its directory information policy if it meets the above conditions, which would then allow it to provide the designated information to the Census Bureau on all students, except those who have opted out of directory information. 

Institutions will have until August 7 to submit this information electronically and until August 26 to submit the information in paper format to the Census Bureau for college/university-owned student housing (on and off-campus). In conversations with the Census Bureau, they would request that the information for students living in non-college/university-owned housing follow the same deadlines and will work with institutions during the summer to obtain this information. If an institution is unable to provide the Census Bureau with the requested information because its current directory information policy does not include one or more of the requested items, the August reporting deadlines should provide ample time to notify students of any revised directory information policy. This would then enable the institution to provide the Census Bureau the information needed for a more accurate count. We hope that this guidance is helpful as we all do our best to ensure an accurate Census count during these difficult times.